Howard Sant-Roos was taught growing up to remain humble no matter what he accomplished. That upbringing and mindset carried him from having next to nothing in Havana in the 1990s to being one of the most respected defenders in European basketball. And it has the 27-year-old on the brink of making Cuban basketball history with Darussafaka Istanbul, which starts the best-of-three 7DAYS EuroCup Finals on Tuesday on the court of Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar.
Sant-Roos has used his hard-nosed defense to lead the EuroCup in steals with 2.1 per game as Darussafaka is now two wins from the title. The 2.00-meter swingman has been an able performer at the offensive end, as well, averaging 8.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
The old adage in basketball says that "defense wins championships." Ask Sant-Roos and he'll tell you that defense will give you a chance to play for championship-caliber teams.
"It's big for me," he says about his D. "Every coach I've been with knows me for that. Every team knows me for that because I take big pride in that. That's my job."
He added one more comment that might leave coaches around the Europe drooling: "Defense is for me much easier. I don't really know where it comes from. But that's how I see it."
That might come from growing up as one of nine people -- including his grandmother, uncles and cousins -- living together in a two-room house.
"When you grow up in a house like that full of people, we always were together," Sant-Roos says. "They taught me a lot: to share, be humble. No matter what, you have to be the same person."
Even though his father, who passed away recently, had played basketball at the college level and made the Cuban national team, Sant-Roos was, like most Cubans, a big baseball fan, though he admits he wasn't very good at the game.
Basketball finally found him in school as he began to grow and was one of the tallest boys in his school. He started playing street ball on a court in front of the school and eventually was introduced to five-on-five.
When asked about basketball role models, it really shouldn't surprise anyone that Sant-Roos cites a Chicago Bulls star -- just not the same one that everyone one else does.
"I started liking Scottie Pippen. He was kind of the player who would do the job at both ends -- defense and offense. So I just grew up with him as a role model," he says. "I would try to be like him. Everybody wanted to be like Jordan, but not everybody is going to be Jordan."
Sant-Roos's mother would end up marrying an Italian and that led to his move to Italy in 2007.
"I was up for an adventure," Sant-Roos recalls. "I thought to myself at least it's going to be some good pasta."
The family moved to Monza outside Milan and Sant-Roos did his best adjusting to a new culture and new language.
"You need to adjust to everything," he said. "It was kind of tough, but at least I was with my mom. It didn't affect me that much."
Sant-Roos rose up the ranks of the Italian youth leagues and eventually someone he used to play against became an agent and signed Sant-Roos, getting him a contract in Germany with the third-division farm team of Braunschweig in 2011.
"I was up for another adventure. I saw it as the start of my career, so I was really excited to be going from Italy to the German culture and seeing how they live."
While his mother had returned to Cuba, the 20-year-old Sant-Roos spent two seasons in Germany, which included a brief three-game stint with Braunschweig's first-division team. Sant-Roos wanted to get back to Italy, so he moved to second-division Casalpusterlengo, which was the club that he played for when he was moving up the ranks.
"I was going back and showing the love because they always believed in me," he said.
After two years with Casalpusterlengo, the next step brought Sant-Roos to Nymburk in the Czech Republic. Most importantly for him, it was a chance to play in the VTB League and face EuroLeague teams.
"I took it as a test to see how much I was ready," he said.
And Sant-Roos didn't disappoint, averaging 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.1 steals -- the latter of which was the second-most in the VTB, getting him recognized as one of the best defenders in the competition.
Playing a decade in Europe had earned Sant-Roos enough money to buy a house for his mother and grandmother to share back in Cuba.
"I wanted to give back to my mom because she struggled a lot for me. Not only my mom but my whole family who always looked out for me. i just wanted to pay back," Sant-Roos said.
With his family back home set up with a better life, it was time for Sant-Roos to take a bigger step in Europe and he signed with Darussafaka, which meant the chance to be coached by the legendary David Blatt.
"David Blatt is a huge coach with a lot of experience. With a coach like that, I was just ready for the experience to learn and to be taught by him," he said.
At 27 years old, Sant-Roos still has plenty of great basketball left in him, and his goal through all this has remained the same:
"I just want to play in the EuroLeague. I feel like that's the best league for me, even bigger than the NBA. I think the EuroLeague is really, really tough. Everybody wants to play in the NBA. That's a child's dream."
Sant-Roos is trying to make history in the process. If Darussafaka can succeed in the 7DAYS EuroCup Finals against Lokomotiv, he would become the first Cuban to win the EuroCup title. He could then become the first Cuban to play in the EuroLeague, as well.
"That would be really exciting," he admits.